If you’re a writer, you probably already know that reading is one of the quickest ways to improve your craft (as well as lots of practice!). Reading for fun is just that, but you can take your reading to the next level by practicing your editorial skills while you read. Here are ten tips to help you absorb a little bit of mastery from every book you read.
Not every book needs a novella-length breakdown just to understand it, but writing a summary after each chapter you read can help you remember what happened and will give you practice writing an outline or “zero draft.” At the end of the book, you’ll have a concise document you can use to look back on when thinking about the book.
After you close the book, ask yourself:
Did I make note of foreshadowing the author used in the beginning of the book?
Did all the plotlines that seemed important to me actually resolve at the end of the book?
Did some characters appear or disappear without warning?
Which chapters had the shortest summaries? Did they add a lot to the story, or could they have been removed?
Were any chapters repetitious?
Complex books will benefit the most from notetaking, especially if you want to remember as many details as possible.
Every writer has a different style, which can impact the emotion and overall feeling you get when reading their book. While you’re taking notes, make sure to write down the author’s style and their idiosyncrasies.
When reading, ask yourself:
Do they use long or short sentences? Sentence fragments?
Are their sentences meandering, or do they get right to the point?
How flowery is their prose? It it poetic?
How much imagery do they use?
What sort of punctuation do they gravitate toward?
Do they have any pet phrases?
Make note of what you do and don’t like about their style, and use that information to influence the next book you pick. Try to read books written in a style you want to emulate—you’ll be surprised how much your own style changes just by reading different authors.
After you read a book, you probably don’t want to read the entire thing again just to find “that one line.” Flag sections of prose that show emotion, use literary devices, or employ otherwise masterful use of language, and save them to come back to when you need inspiration. Write down examples of sentences you like and keep them in a document you can easily reference while writing.
You can also flag sections that don’t make sense to you right now or you want to investigate after further reading. For example, if you are reading a mystery novel, try flagging suspicious dialogue—when the mystery is solved, see if what you flagged was foreshadowing or a red herring.
Flag sections that you don’t like in a different color. Sometimes we all need to remind ourselves of what not to do, and making note of one or two things that hit you the wrong way can help when you are editing your own writing and looking for prose that you want to remove.
During the reading process, when you come across a plot point that you loved, hated, or just thought was interesting, put the book down and talk about it with a trusted friend—or anyone who will listen! This will help you process and dissect the book.
Try to explain what happened in the book up to this point, employing your new summary skills. Let the other person ask questions and answer them to the best of your ability as if you were the author.
Why did this happen?
Why are the characters acting like this?
What will happen next? What will the ending be?
What are the author’s intentions?
What is the book’s message so far?
What themes are being revealed?
While it’s important to read often to develop your eye as a writer, reader, and editor, it’s crucial to not read too fast. If you don’t take your time, you might miss nuances and subtleties in the prose, and you may forget earlier plot points or character development, leaving you with a swiss-cheese version of the story in your head.
Try reading twenty, thirty, even fifty pages at a time and then take a break. Write down what happened and any questions you have. You will still fly through books (if that’s your goal), but by taking a few extra minutes to think while you read, you’ll have time to digest the story and consider what’s happening at the structural and prose levels.
When choosing your next book to read, don’t settle for something you won’t enjoy even if others recommend it. Your skill won’t improve if you can’t get hooked by what you’re reading, and there’s a good chance you’ll put down the book without finishing it. The best way to learn story structure is to read a book from start to finish, and you don’t want to dread getting to the end of your book.
Choose books by authors whose stories, characters, and styles you admire. Don’t want to write like William Faulkner? Don’t read his books! You will be influenced by what you read consciously or subconsciously, so be choosy and don’t pick anything but the best.
Read reviews before you pick up a book. Are the readers complaining about things you actually like? Try reading the book even if the ratings aren’t through the roof. Are they praising things you hate? Then don’t read the book even if it’s a 4.9!
Some books have bad ratings because people have bad experiences with them, such as when they’re assigned for school reading. Classics aren’t for everybody, but don’t be scared away by some bad ratings if the number of reviews is astronomical. Everyone has their opinions.
We all make mistakes. Sometimes you pick up a book that seems perfect and it falls flat in the middle, or even in chapter 2. If you’re struggling to get through a book but it isn’t offensive and there’s at least a thread of intrigue left, I recommend finishing it even if you have to skim. If nothing else, you’ll learn what to avoid next time.
So, you’re reading a book and you come across something you vehemently disagree with. Don’t put the book down just yet! All authors come from different backgrounds, and it’s important to take their lives into consideration while you read, especially when something hits you the wrong way.
Do some research and ask yourself:
Is the author’s culture different than my own?
Has the author experienced something that influenced the way they wrote their book?
Does the author have experience with an illness, subculture, or event that I haven’t experienced?
Why does this portrayal make me uncomfortable?
What is the author’s intention with the book (if there is definitive answer) and why isn’t it landing for me?
How does my own lived experience influence the way I interpret the book?
Just because a book doesn’t land for you doesn’t mean that everyone who reads it will feel the same way. Consider who the book is for, and acknowledge that you may not be the target audience. And that’s okay! Disagreeing with the author is a valid reason to shelve a book—just give it some thought after your emotions settle down. Maybe you can still learn something from it.
A book isn’t borne from a single draft—sometimes not even twelve! From author, to agent, to editor, to publisher, to copyeditor, to proofreader, all the way to the bookstore, things change.
Think about what the author might have come up with in the beginning and how they crafted the threads to make a complete, complex book.
What might not have made it into the book due to their editor’s suggestions?
Are there any points in the story where things feel too safe?
What audience is this book for (adults, teens, children) and how would the book change if it were for a different audience?
“This book would be my number one if only…” is a phrase no author wants to hear, but as a reader it is a crucial one to explore. After you finish reading a book, think about the things that didn’t quite work for you. Hopefully you wrote some of these things down in your notes!
Was the ending satisfying?
Did the characters develop in logical and emotionally-compelling ways?
Did the book sag during the middle?
Is the book’s message positive or negative and what other messages could there be?
Did I have fun reading the book? Why or why not?
If I’m not part of the target audience, does the book actually serve its intended audience?
Then, try asking:
When did things start to go wrong?
Was there enough foreshadowing to justify the ending?
Were there to many or too few characters?
Was the plot needlessly confusing?
Why did parts of the story feel too slow or fast?
Were the characters active or reactive?
Did the author’s style help or hinder the reading experience?
Did the story need more structural editing?
How would I change the beginning, middle, or end if I were the author?
If you loved the book, this is the easiest stage of all. Gush to your friends about the story, daydream about the characters, and recommend the book to everyone. Go through the notes you made and the passages your flagged and try to absorb as much of the author’s skill as you can. When you’re ready, put the book on your desk within reach and flip through it whenever you need a little inspiration.
If you didn’t like the book, or you even hated it, try to look beyond your own bias. When you analyze a book, it’s easy to be overly critical, and it’s important to remember that every book has the potential to be someone’s favorite. Even though the book could use a tweak here and there, or another read-through, or another pair of eyes, it still passed through all the gates and made it onto the shelves—try to figure out why and learn from it.
Who is this book written for and why do they enjoy it?
What made this book so popular?
What kind of marketing did this book have?
What was the publishing sphere like when this book came out?
How many books had the author published before this?
What trends were circling when the book was released?
Does the book do something that you hate, and does it do it masterfully?
Try one or two of these tips the next time you read and see if they work for you! There's no wrong way to read a book, and as long as you keep reading, you will slowly develop your own way of breaking down the text and absorbing those juicy tidbits of authorial wisdom.